Local Food Act: Good things grow in Ontario

With the Legislative Assembly of Ontario back in action after a prorogation by the previous premier, the Local Food Act (Bill 36) has once again been reintroduced by the Minister of Agriculture and Food. The Minister explained that the Ontario government will lead by example in the support of local food systems by setting policy direction such as “requiring ministries to consider local food for procurements under $25, 000”. Also, the week leading up to Thanksgiving, which is the first Monday of October in Canada, will be Local Food Week, overlapping with the already existing Agriculture Week.

The bill definitely has a catchy title that is very with the times. However, all of the discussion that I have heard around the Local Food Act raises questions in my mind about what the government is trying to achieve. The phrase ‘local food’ is thrown around a lot. In the Act, local food is defined as:

(a)    Food produced or harvested in Ontario, and

(b)    Subject to any limitations in the regulations, food and beverages made in Ontario if they include ingredients produced or harvested in Ontario.

But I don’t think all local food is equal. And not all local food should automatically be considered to be superior to non-local food. “Local food” is more complex than just naming the borders of production. We need to think more critically about what it means to buy local, eat local, and support local.

  • If we do the ‘local’ thing, what factors do we want to prioritize? Is it eating more seasonally? Increasing funding and decreasing red tape to support the infrastructure necessary for local food systems?  Encouraging farmers to work with the land with sustainability for generations in mind (meaning less harm done to the soil and to plant diversity)?
  • What are the implications of decreasing your food mileage? How could this impact the farms countries away that have been shaped to supply some percentage of our food? Is a local food system more efficient or sustainable than a global food system?
  • For the public sector organizations that would be impacted by any targets set under the Act, what effect would local food procurement targets have on their overall operating budget? For example, hospitals receive decreased provincial funding to provide services, which result in cuts to staff and services; will local food procurement be affordable?
  • By using more of the food produced in Ontario within Ontario, will this have any effect on the availability of Ontario produce elsewhere in Canada?
  • Where does education fall into this picture? There is IMMENSE value in teaching children from pre-school through high school about food production and cooking through school gardens and kitchens. We need to educate kids and folks in general about making decisions related to their food. We also need to seriously address food security.
  • Even if the supermarket has signs indicating that this product was made in Ontario, what does this mean to consumers? Do they notice? Does this factor into their decision-making? Does it make a difference?

These are just some of the questions that floated into my head after reading the Local Food Act. The Minister (and numerous critics) has publicly acknowledged that the content of the bill is vague, but I suppose the idea is to create a framework to which more detail can later be added…?

Don’t get me wrong. I think it would be great if places like hospitals place real value on the quality of the ingredients that they use in their food; after all, ingredients do make a big difference. But the issue is complex and we just need to make sure that we’re having active discussions on what we want to focus on and prioritize.

You can read the short bill here: http://www.ontla.on.ca/web/bills/bills_detail.do?locale=en&Intranet=&BillID=2754

A side note on food security: I was listening to a podcast that was discussing this topic and someone made a very good point that hadn’t consciously occurred to me. It isn’t just about teaching people how to cook from ‘raw’ ingredients (vegetables, meats, etc). Some people don’t have access to cooking implements. No stove, no oven, maybe no microwave or toaster. We can’t just think of a lack of access to affordable good ingredients. It’s access to the whole package.

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